Thursday, June 24, 2021

Taking "Old" as a Compliment


Right now I am reading Justine Bateman’s book Face: One Square Foot of Skin. It’s about beauty expectations for older women with a particular emphasis on the pressure to get plastic surgery to stay young-looking. Young is the standard for beauty. Old is the standard for ugly, washed up, hard to look at. In her introduction, Bateman talks about how, as a young actress, she longed for the smile and worry lines she saw in older European actresses. Somehow, despite growing up in Hollywood, she saw beauty in these signs of aging. Throughout the book, she shares a series of vignettes she’s collected about other women’s experiences getting older.

I have great empathy for women in Hollywood. The pressure to stay young-looking is profoundly dysfunctional and incredibly destructive to the natural process of becoming older. Bateman is pushing back against this. In one chapter she sets a scene of “old” being beautiful. She depicts a handful of women hanging out on the golf course eschewing sunscreen, hats, or anything else that might hinder the natural process of developing wrinkles. In this vignette, wrinkles are beautiful. They are a roadmap of one’s life. As an aging woman myself, I recognized the absurdity of this scenario but still, I loved this chapter.

I recently started working at my friend’s consignment shop. We sell women’s clothing and accessories. The store is a friendly neighborhood destination — lots of regulars and occasionally some out-of-area stragglers.

Yesterday while I was working, an old man came in with an old woman. I am fifty-two so old to me means at least seventy-five, probably eighty. Very old means the high eighties or nineties.

As I approached the couple to tell them about our sale, the man came by and, standing way too close, said, “You remind me so much of my ex-wife.” I politely nodded and pointed to the area where everything was 30 percent off. He came up to me again and said, “I really can’t believe how much you remind me of my ex-wife.”

In my mind I was thinking his ex-wife looked must have looked like him — a white-haired, old-looking version of him. And I’m not proud of this feeling, but I was offended. I didn’t want to look like that.

A few hours later a very old woman came up to the counter to pay for a pinky-peach linen blouse. “I love this color,” I said to her as I rang in her item. Then, realizing that my blouse and pants were also that color, I laughed and said, “Ha Ha. I’m wearing that exact color from head to toe. I guess I really do like that color.”

“Peach is good for us as we get older, the very old woman responded, “it softens and flatters us.”

“I’m her,” I thought to myself as I folded her blouse into tissue paper and tucked her receipt into the package. My mind went into a slow panic — like the dishwasher being emptied into an anti-gravity chamber, forks and plates and coffee cups randomly floating around looking for a place to settle.

I felt confused. I wasn’t ready for this. “I’m only fifty-two,” I thought to myself. And then gravity returned. All the dishes and silverware clattered on the floor and I was back to reality. I saw the absurdity of my thinking. I am getting older. We all get older. I will be lucky and grateful if I get to be as old as this woman. Very old shopping at a cool consignment shop to boot!

I believe in the old adage, “beauty is skin deep.” I have tried to drill that belief into my daughter’s head for sixteen years. I tell her grandparents not to comment on her looks. If someone says what a beautiful young woman she’s growing into I quickly snap back, “and SMART!”

But I see my daughter focusing on her looks, garnering great self-esteem from the attention she gets. And I’m no different. These two moments in the store, where separate individuals commented on my age, went right to my ego. These two comments were telling me, “you’re old,” which I translated to mean, “you’re not beautiful.”

I am getting old. My hair is getting gray. I have smile and laugh and worry lines. The skin on my hands, arms, and legs is getting crepey. My kneecaps hurt when I garden. There are lots of signs that I am getting older.

Society has done a number on women. Instead of feeling accomplished for the forehead grooves that come from years of hard thinking, problem-solving, and accomplishing things in my life, like millions of other aging women, I’ve fallen prey to the dogma that I should try to hide or erase those markings.

I have friends who do Botox. And I have friends who’ve had other lifts and tucks. It makes them feel better. I get it. We’re all part of this bigger messed-up system that hates wrinkles and all things old. My reaction to those two comments in the store yesterday shone a light on my internalized disdain for aging, and thus for myself.

The woman with the pink blouse might have been beautiful had I looked at her long and hard enough to even really see her. But I hadn’t. Because she was very old I simply dismissed her and then, because we were alike, both older than younger, I dismissed myself.

That utopian scene in Bateman’s book where wrinkles and other signs of aging were revered seemed so farfetched when I read that chapter. It was like reading science fiction. But why? I’m grateful for the life experiences that have given me wrinkles — all of the summers playing in the lake, the years of walking I’ve done, playing soccer, riding my bike. My forehead creases come from years of reading and writing and parenting. I wouldn’t change any of that stuff so why would I change my face?

I’m on the young side of old and if I’m lucky, I’m going to keep getting older. The patriarchy is not going to suddenly change and proclaim, “older women are beautiful.” Victoria’s Secret will likely not start using menopausal women in their ad campaigns. Now that I’m older, I see clearly how these societal norms have influenced me adversely. When I first started reading Bateman’s book I thought to myself, “I’m not like these Hollywood women.” But I am. I may not be getting plastic surgery, but I believe the same things they do.

I don’t want to believe those things anymore. Those messages don’t serve me or any women, young or old. The next time someone comments to me about being an older woman I am going to smile broadly, feel the wrinkles around my eyes and mouth fire up, and say, “Thank you.”

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